Advice To Designers: A Portfolio Is Not Enough - You Must Write

There’s a lot of discussion around whether or not UX designers need portfolios. That’s a topic for another day. But I do have opinions about what’s wrong with a lot of UX portfolios.

One observation I have is that thanks to sites like Dribbble, we’re seeing designers post designs perhaps as a way to showcase their skills to other designers … fetching likes and comments on their “artwork”. But, this type of thinking is dangerous because it puts too much emphasis on the interface, on what it looks like, on the end result.

A few days ago I sent out this tweet:

It started quite a discussion and lead me to write this post on why having a UX portfolio is not enough and the importance for designers to also force themselves to become writers.

I don’t just want to see what you can do as a designer. I want to see how you think. I want to see your process. These portfolio-esque sites put too much emphasis on the end result and we need to think of how we can showcase how we think.

Early on my career, I started writing. I was in university finishing up my degree and one of the courses I took was on the impact of technology on society. My professor gave me some good feedback on a few of the essays I wrote and so I decided to re-purposes them as blog posts. The truth is that at the time, I didn’t see the real value in what I was doing.

I’m guessing part of my thought process was that since I didn’t have an amazing UX portfolio with big name clients, I would supplement it with writing. Looking back though, these little essays turned blog posts really served as a catalyst for my interest in writing and my passion for user experience.

I love design. But as a designer, I also love to explore how design affects us as individuals and a society. This exploration comes through reading, thinking, observing, and writing.

Without this exploration through writing, I don’t think that I’d have the information, inspiration, and creativity to draw upon when it really comes time to actually design.

If you are a designer who’s starting out, the best advice I can give to you is this: Just. Start. Writing.

Writing has opened up so many amazing opportunities for my career. People have found my writing and contacted me for job opportunities, other writing opportunities, speaking opportunities and more. Without writing, my career would not be where it is today, that’s for sure!

No of course, yes we need a UX portfolio. Without a portfolio, we don’t have examples of evidence that we can do what we say we can do. But, a UX portfolio is not enough.

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A website full of pretty pixel-perfect screenshots and sexy looking sketches only shows me what you can do. If I’m going to hire you, and if you really want to establish yourself as a leader and expert, you have to help me understand how you think.

Writing is the best way to showcase how you think. Now, the goal is not that when you apply for jobs you send people a bunch of articles or lengthly case studies.

Honestly, the purpose of writing should be to force you to learn to think critically and communicate your ideas. Even if someone who interviews you never reads a single thing you wrote, you’ll be prepared for any question they ask you because you’ll have thought through the products you worked on. Writing UX case studies is a great way to think through your projects, be ready for interview questions, and also develop your own confidence as a designer.

When you write a case study you’ll probably think, “wow, that project was really impressive”. But when you’re in the middle of it, you can easily lose sight of just how great the work and thinking is.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “I don’t have time for writing”.  You’re also probably thinking that if you write, who actually will have time to read it?

Well, here’s the secret: the goal of writing is not just for people to see the thinking behind what you do.

I promise, the process of writing will make you a better designer.

Writing will force you to develop your own thinking behind what you do. It will force you to develop an opinion, a voice, an idea, and communicate that clearly. Those skills are all critical to being a great designer and unfortunately, are not emphasized enough in education and training today.

The best designers I know are also great writers, and it’s no coincidence. I’m not the only person who thinks this. My friend Mark Busse wrote about this too in his article If you don’t think you need to write good, then you’s an idiot. In the piece, he writes:

It used to be that pretty portfolios were an effective way to show off your talents and get noticed, but these days firms and clients alike want to know who you are, how you work, what you stand for, and whether you will be a good fit for them. Pretty pictures can’t tell that story, so you have to.

Also, unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you know that everyone has a blog now. This includes design studios. Designers and studios that regularly post quality content on their blogs show potential clients their expertise and capability, building their reputation and credibility. If you avoid hosting your own blog because you can’t write well and don’t feel like making the effort, then you’ve missed a terrific opportunity to stand out from the crowd.”

Want to know how Mark and I met? He read something I wrote and then blogged about it, emailed me, and we’ve been friends ever since. If I hadn’t been writing, Mark and I probably never would have met.

Nine times out of ten, when people contact to express interest in working together, they don’t say, “I love that screenshot in your UX portfolio” or “That user-flow was really awesome.”

Nope. Instead, they say things such as “I read that blog post about …” or “I loved that article that you wrote for ….”

People connect with how you think, with your thoughts, ideas, and observations.

People will only be able to make that connection if you take the first step and just start writing.


* This is the first post in a 3 part series on why designers must also be writers, not just to supplement their portfolios, but to ultimately make them better designers.

Part 1 – A Portfolio Is Not Enough, Why You Must Write

Part 2 – Practical Tips To Become A Better Writer

Part 3 – Where To Post Your Writing (especially if you don’t have an audience)